What’s in a name?

johann-sebastian-bachIt’s sometimes wise not to blink when looking up composers in an index. Bach, J. S. can easily get transposed into Bach, J.C., not to mention the rest of the alphabet casserole his sons generate with their forenames.

Mendelssohn F(elix) might appear on safer ground, but not if his sister Mendelssohn F(anny) is around; that is, before she changed her surname to Mendelssohn Bartholdy or, after marriage, to Hensel. If you’re new to her music, you can sample her compositional style in a new release this month of her songs, containing settings of both German and English texts (Naxos 8.572781).

Schumann, Robert, is more easily differentiated from his wife Schumann, Clara, while Schuman, William, falls short of an ‘n’ towilliam-schuman escape confusion. If Schuman isn’t yet in your lexicon, you can enjoy a representative selection of the 20th-century American composer’s orchestral writing on Naxos 8.559254.

johann-strauss-IFor your convenience, Johann Strauss I and Johann Strauss II can be heard in their entirety and by their separate identities on 79 discs in the Marco Polo catalogue, while Stravinsky father (Igor) and his pianist son (Soulima) can be heard as a pair on Naxos Classical Archives 9.80666.

Josef and Anton Reicha, the 18th/19th-century cellist uncle and composer nephew; siblings Henry and Daniel Purcell; Leopold, Wolfgang Amadeus and Xaver, three generations of Mozarts – the list goes on.

One of the surnames that frequently crops up, and possibly confuses, is common to a trio of musicians called Rubinstein – Anton, Nikolai and Arthur. Let’s try and unravel their identities here for anyone in need of clarification.

Anton (1829-1894) and Nikolai (1835-1881) were brothers, born in Russia and pivotal figures with regard to the establishment of the country’s music conservatoires, an area in which it was underdeveloped in comparison with its European counterparts; in fact, musicians had little social status compared with those involved with the visual arts. They lived at a time when the development of Russian nationalism in music was being knocked into shape by the Russian Five (Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui). Incredibly, they were all largely self-taught and so their music characteristically reflected a passionate commitment to their cause, rather than the fruits of regulated, academic studies.

anton-rubinsteinAnton Rubinstein founded the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1862 and was at musical loggerheads with this set of five maverick composers who claimed to be the real promoters of a Russian spirit in the evolving musical scene. This differential is apparent not only in the music, but also often in the titles of their pieces:

Anton Rubinstein: Symphony No. 6 (Marco Polo 8.220489)
Mili Balakirev: Russia (Naxos 8.550793)
Alexander Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia (Naxos 8.557456)
Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Naxos Historical 8.110242-44)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (Naxos 8.572693)
César Cui: The Buccaneer (Marco Polo 8.223400)

Nikolai, Anton’s younger brother, was co-founder and director of the Moscow Conservatory in 1866, where Tchaikovsky was engaged to teach harmony. Between them, the two brothers and their cerebral institutions were a formidable challenge for the more impulsive style of the Russian Five. To the dismay of the latter, Rimsky-Korsakov became a turncoat when he accepted a professorship of composition post at the St Petersburg Conservatory, despite his lack of formal training.

Although Anton was noted both as a composer, conductor and pianist, brother Nikolai was recognised more singularly for his piano skills, which arthur-rubinsteinbrings us to the third Rubinstein – the legendary Polish pianist, Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982).

The lack of indulgent excesses in his playing made him perfect as an interpreter of Chopin, as can be heard on a number of discs from the Naxos Classical Archives, including 9.80969-70 for the mazurkas, and 9.80909-10 for the nocturnes and scherzos. He toured extensively, both around Europe and America, his way paved by acclaimed recordings such as that of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto (Naxos Historical 8.111271). He became an American citizen in 1946; he died at the age of 95, having given his last recital at London’s Wigmore Hall in 1976, aged eighty-seven.

And the giant of the piano lives on still, having allowed the Tel-Aviv Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition to be named in his honour. The triennial event will be held next in 2014. At the inaugural competition held in 1974, Rubinstein headed an international jury who awarded the first prize to a certain Emanuel Ax. Their judgement has indeed been vindicated.